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Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am confident that the noble Lord is aware that there was not necessarily extensive consultation in Northern Ireland. But a very special set of circumstances applies to Northern Ireland and I believe that that must inform our debate this evening.
We want to achieve a society in which public bodies uphold the duty to promote equal opportunities so that it makes a practical, telling difference to the way that citizens live their lives. That must be right. For that to happen we need to explore how to set up workable arrangements to which public authorities can adhere and develop proposals for an effective and proportionate system of enforcement.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, raised the whole question of enforcement. He pointed out that there might well be weaknesses in the amendment in that it rather side-stepped the issue of enforcement. Some may argue that precedents in Northern Ireland provide a good model. However, it is far from clear that it would be appropriate simply to transpose those arrangements lock, stock and barrel to Great Britain. For example, the scale of activity required to appraise and inspect all the public authorities, as the amendment requires, would be phenomenally resource intensive. We cannot afford to set up a bureaucratic, administrative nightmare. I say to those members of the Committee who, quite rightly, support the spirit of this amendment that we must focus further time and attention on the important issue of how a positive duty to promote is to be introduced, policed and made to work. We believe that workability is very much at the heart of our debate.
The Government are committed to introducing a duty on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity in the areas of race, sex and disability. We want to present our options and proposals for consultation later this year before we introduce legislation. At that point we shall be able to seek and positively encourage views from all quarters on what will be a wide-ranging duty to promote positively equal opportunities. We have not been slow to move forward in this area. In the meantime, we shall continue to press ahead with administrative action, as we have been doing throughout the life of the Government. We have built on the mainstream guidelines issued to policymakers, making careful progress, but progress nevertheless, on the targets set for ethnic minority recruitment, retention and promotion. I am sure the Committee accepts that that has been an important aspect of the administrative work of the Government to take forward this whole area of policy.
I am reluctant to become too embroiled in the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, except to say that I am conscious that the Home Secretary replied to the question and that we must make progress in that field. The Home Office, as with all other departments, is very much on side in the context of Northern Ireland. I ask the Committee to consider very carefully what I have said. We all want to make progress and clearly there is a political consensus.
Lord Avebury: I did not really expect the Minister to give me an answer on the Floor of the House. Will the noble Lord write to me, and place a copy in the Library, saying whether the Home Office has signed up to Section 75(3) of the Northern Ireland Act? Can he do so before Report stage?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I shall happily ensure that the noble Lord receives a reply to clarify the situation. There is a political consensus on this matter. But we need to work to give it practical effect by its introduction into legislation across the whole range of equality issues. For that reason we need a process of careful consultation. I shall carefully reflect on what has been said this evening. We shall continue to keep the matter very much at the forefront of our thinking. I hope the Committee accepts that the Government have not merely expressed good faith in this matter but have, since May 1997, made progress in policy and implementation in this field. I congratulate all those who have given effect to that progress, particularly those in the public service. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to accept the Government's good faith in this matter and to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Of course we accept the Government's good faith. What we do not accept is the Minister's dismal and deeply disappointing reply. We all agree on the political objective: in that sense there is a consensus. What deeply divides us is that we on these Benches believe that the means to give effect to that objective must be found now in this Bill and not at a
I have been criticised, perfectly fairly, by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, for not seeking to write into the Bill the kind of detail that appears in the Northern Ireland Act so that Parliament can examine it in detail. My reason for not doing so is my desire to preserve flexibility for the Home Office, other government departments and the Commission for Racial Equality to be able, with the authority of Parliament, to come up with a scheme sooner rather than later related to race discrimination and equality as an experiment or model which can be examined when there is an equality Bill either during the lifetime of this Parliament or, if necessary, at a later date. The Minister has given no coherent reason for the need to delay. As far as I am aware, there was no consultation about what happened in Northern Ireland.
I should like to address the question of the difference between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cope. I am sure the noble Lord did not mean to imply that the problems of race discrimination are any less serious in Britain than those of religious and race discrimination in Northern Ireland. I should like to share with him and the House a recollection pointing to the danger of any other point of view.
Some years ago, on behalf of a Home Secretary no longer alive, I was consulted by an extremely senior and now retired Home Office civil servant. He took me to lunch and said, "I should like to ask you what we should be doing about race equality and race relations". I was about to travel to Belfast in order to give advice there about human rights in Northern Ireland. With this senior official, I went through all the options, platitudes and obvious things that needed to be done, including the need for a positive duty. Each time I came to another proposal he said, "That is politically impossible". I asked "Why are all these proposals, including a positive duty, politically impossible?" He replied, "There is not sufficient political will". I said, "I am going to Northern Ireland this afternoon where there is plenty of political will because they have burnt the place down. The place is full of rioting and killing. Is the only way in which we shall get action in Britain for us to distribute boxes of matches to the ethnic minority to follow suit so that there is sufficient political will?" He sighed and said, "I cannot see how I can get my political masters"--they were Conservative, not Labour--"to have sufficient political will in Britain because in Britain race relations are still relatively peaceful".
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have listened with interest to the point the noble Lord makes. In a sense--I invite him to agree--he makes the case for the argument that I put. It is accepted that there is a political consensus here. We need to get this right. It is right that we find the time to have important consultations on this issue not least because we are not talking just about a positive duty to promote race equality but a positive duty to promote a number of
I invite the noble Lord at least to reflect that consultation is important. It may not have been an absolute priority and necessity in the urgent and special circumstances of Northern Ireland, but with the complexities that this issue brings, such consultation is right.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I fully agree with that. That is why the amendment gives authority to the Government to apply that duty in a manner which is based on consultation between the Government and the Commission for Racial Equality. If necessary, we can add a wider consultation duty. But the amendment gives the necessary authority so that the Government can proceed now in the field of race discrimination rather than waiting to deal with all the complexities of other kinds of discrimination.
The United Kingdom has been criticised by the UN Human Rights Committee for not taking steps with sufficient vigour, and by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as recently as 1997. It criticised the United Kingdom for the lack of a similar positive legal duty on bodies working in the fields of health, education, social services, planning and housing as that which applied to local authorities. So we stand condemned by two respected international human rights bodies in the race discrimination field.
I do not use emotive or exaggerated language. I simply say that it is unacceptable for the United Kingdom to be pilloried in that way because of the refusal by consecutive governments to take effective action. The time is right. There is no reason why that duty cannot be included in this Bill any more than in the Greater London Authority Act, or in the Northern Ireland Act.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, mentioned the sad story of the Liberals in Tower Hamlets. The first appalling job I had to do when I became a Member of this House was to investigate what some members of my party had done in Tower Hamlets. My somewhat strong report speaks for itself. We took, I hope, effective action--if one makes party political points, stronger action than has been taken by some parties in some parts of the country. The Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets needed this duty to be imposed on them, as do Labour and Conservative members in all public authorities.
We will not wait. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, kindly described me as an expert. I am not an expert. He is an expert. The reason that the noble Lord and the ethnic minority Peers in this House are experts is because they are potential or actual victims of race discrimination. They have the kind of expertise that I as a white, middle class liberal lawyer living not in Hampstead but in Herne Hill, next to Brixton, lack. I may be Jewish, but I am not visibly different in the same way that
Therefore, I shall press something like this amendment with or without further detail. I shall withdraw the amendment, but I promise to return to the issue at Report stage. If we do not have a commitment by then, I propose to divide the House. I hope that we shall then at last unite together to get something sensible on the stocks so that we can proceed not with all deliberate prevarication but with all reasonable speed.
I am sorry if I sound a little cross; I am very cross. The answer given by the Minister is wholly unsatisfactory. I hope that Members of the Committee on all sides agree with me. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.